Second Acts

Handmade and Full of Soul

Brian DeRan on trading the music industry for the Mojave Desert.

I flew into LAX in the time of pre-GPS apps on your phone, and there wasn’t much service out here, and there are no streetlights. I found them, luckily, and saw this place in the morning — this pristine, beautiful environment — and fell in love with it immediately.

THE CRAGGY MOJAVE DESERT lends itself easily to color-blocking reductions: soft, sandy horizontal stripes of maroon earth; tracks of dusty orchid and amethyst mountains; a relentless marigold sun melting down to a rose-quartz blush, left to fall back into a cobalt night sky as fast as quicksand. Only sterling silver stars and the occasional, lonely Joshua tree puncture the flatness. Artist Brian DeRan incorporates these scraps of pure pigment into each unique or limited-edition sculpture he makes in his Western Desert Studio. Raised in rural Pennsylvania and trained at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), DeRan made a first career of managing experimental rock bands in mid-aughts Brooklyn and working on film projects like Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle” and John Waters’ “Cecil B. Demented.” His downtime was spent on architectural restoration projects for churches and Mormon temples, along with ancient Roman and Egyptian art restoration for museum collections — tactile and meditative work that ultimately helped him return to his own creative practice, informing his choice to leave urban life behind for a sanctuary in the desert.

The artist followed a circuitous path to claim his own corner of the dunes: In 2006, Gang Gang Dance, one of the avant-garde bands he was managing in New York, came to Wonder Valley to record at multidisciplinary artist Jack Pierson’s retreat. When DeRan visited the group, he immersed himself in this new and unexpected project. “I flew into LAX in the time of pre-GPS apps on your phone, and there wasn’t much service out here, and there are no streetlights. I found them, luckily, and saw this place in the morning — this pristine, beautiful environment,” he gestures to the endless arid flats around him, located about 10 miles north of Joshua Tree’s main strip, “and fell in love with it immediately.”

By 2013, he was based in Los Angeles and spending more and more time in his painting studio in the Eastside neighborhood of Glassell Park. When the building was sold, he picked up and continued further eastward — all the way to the Mojave. “This was my really great opportunity to move out here,” he shares. “Everything else I was finding in Los Angeles was quite expensive and further away than I wanted to commute to.” He originally planned to use the Joshua Tree spot as a weekend getaway studio, but the city’s relentless pace and hotly competitive market led him to move to the compound full-time by 2019, giving him just enough of a head start to settle in before much of the world came to a halt. “Being out here has put me in a situation where I can really focus, so that’s been the silver lining of the pandemic for me for sure.” Of course, in terms of mileage, he isn’t far from LA, but everything looks and feels different “out here.” The slow pace of life and the charged mood created by the climate have proved both meditative and motivating for the artist.

The slow pace of life and the charged mood created by the climate have proved both meditative and motivating for the artist.

When he first arrived, DeRan quickly connected to the community of artists and musicians who have long called this mythical stretch home. Now nestled in a house and studio spread across five acres, he continues to partner with other artists. It’s one way that DeRan maintains continuity with the life he had before moving to the Mojave. One of his most rewarding collaborations has been with master printer Kyle Simon of local Farrington Press. The two former New Yorkers, introduced by a member of Animal Collective — another band DeRan had managed — met at an event at the Integratron, a nearby spiritual landmark. They spent a month collaborating on a woodcut of hallucinatory Arctic ridgelines and open skies, and pressed it at the base of Big Horn Mountain Wilderness in neighboring Pioneertown. His other artisan pursuits include handcrafting walnut tables, chests, and mirrors held together with simple Spanish Colonial or Japanese-style joinery and finished with a coat of beeswax or Danish oil. They are finely and quietly detailed with many of the same motifs that adorn his pots: plain crosses, angular waves, or square spirals.

DeRan continues to dig deeper into his surroundings — literally — for his ceramics, using minerals straight out of the land to create glazes, ranging from faded ecrus and taupes to the rusts of the immense encircling bluffs, and occasionally the magnetic gemstone hues of deep turquoise and lapis lazuli. Western Desert Studio’s handmade ceramics are covered in faintly glowing patinas and layered washes that make it hard to determine at a glance whether they’re brand new or centuries-old, sun-bleached settlers’ relics. His past experiences reappear here too: Hefty earthenware forms are molded from terra cotta or reclaimed light buff clay and covered by a terra sigillata slip, recalling the casting, mold-making, and gilding techniques he honed while working with restorers and artisans in the past. The vessels retain their delicacy through extensive kiln firing and betray some of his subtle artistic inspirations. Each one maintains the sophisticated intricacy of the West African pottery tradition; the high-vibrational serenity of paintings by abstract expressionist Agnes Martin; the accessibility of Japanese mingei, or folk art, ceramics; as well as the stylings of mingei’s polar opposite, the postwar Sōdeisha potters, who roundly rejected utilitarian functionality — eschewing even an opening or hole in their containers — in their absurdly abstracted designs. The straightforward cross, as much a symbol of the terrain’s undeniable metaphysical pull as it is a visual staple across regional aesthetics, adorns a number of his designs, imbuing them with a gentle otherworldliness. Each one feels like an object for a special moment. The pots truly borrow from the dirt and the dust. “The energy of the desert is in my work,” DeRan says. “It affects everything out here.”

Our Contributors

Jennifer Piejko Writer

Jennifer Piejko is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She writes about visual arts and culture.

Vincent Perini Photographer

Vincent Perini is a Texas-raised, Los Angeles–based portrait photographer with a background in art history and large format photography.

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